The Consistent Console Message

As we're in the midst of a console war, Jon Newcombe considers if consumer desires should be driving technological innovation.

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Sony's Andrew House recently hit news feeds around the world with a statement made at Gamescom. ‘While others have shifted their message and changed their story, we were consistent in maintaining a message that is fair and in tune with consumer desires.' Clearly a not-so-subtle dig at Microsoft's backtracking and policy changing. While a Sony employee criticising the competition is entirely understandable in a rivalry that many consider a war, are consumer desires really what should be driving technological innovation?

I speak as a consumer myself when I say that my desires haven't always been the best way forward. One thing I've noticed about my desires over the years is - they change. There was a time when I preferred Mini-disk players to MP3. There was a time when every phone upgrade was another Nokia. There was a time when only myself, tramps and students drank cider.

A trip down my local reveals how my desires have shifted. I'll play someone an MP3 on my Apple iPhone. I'll go to the bar to order gin and tonic but will have to wait while the people ahead of me get in a round of cider. My point is, sometimes it's necessary for something to go against my desires in order to exceed them.

The Consistent Console Message
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Sony hasn't played it safe. It's created a console that's more developer friendly than the type of console its familiar developing. The support for indie developers demonstrates faith that the indie scene is going to keep strong and supports new types of gaming. While it's impressive stuff, it's very gradual progress.

Rapid leaps forward don't tend to sit well with people, we're not hard-wired that way. 'If it 'aint broke don't fix it' is more than just a mantra. It's something that has served our species spectacularly throughout evolution. Of course humanity has changed, but very gradually. At no point did early man say 'Hunting and gathering has worked pretty well so far, but why don't we stop all that and start building factories?'

Instead, over many years of interacting with animals and objects we discovered we could use them to our advantage. We realised circular things roll, so eventually applied that to needs for haulage and after that transportation. We figured out that improving things was possible and, over centuries, began doing it on an industrial scale. The very nature of an adaptive species is to adapt - slowly - towards the new.

Perhaps this is what Microsoft forgot when it first revealed plans for the Xbox One. It forgot consumers already liked their console. They understood it, it served the function they wanted it to. They were happy to see it take a gradual step forward but what Microsoft offered was so far away from their desires, they couldn't see the potential.

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Always online is not a fantasy, it's a very realistic possibility for many consumers in many parts of the world. While privacy is a concern, having devices always talking to each other and feeding data to the manufacturer has many advantages as well. It's not much different from what smart phones do multiple times per day. Every time you surf the net, you're feeding data back to somewhere. The advantages of this are things such as auto updates, social connectivity, and file sharing.

The Consistent Console Message

Digital Rights Management, though a bone of contention, is a realistic future that could eventually drive game prices down. Every time a game is shared, sold as pre-owned or pirated, is a time the developers aren't seeing any reward for their work. If more people bought the product rather than obtained it through other means, it's reasonable to think that lower retail prices to drive competition would follow.

Microsoft wasn't wrong to try to address this, but was wrong with how it promoted it. Rather than force change upon a resistant audience, the better approach would have been to let change evolve. It's unlikely anybody at Microsoft deliberately set out to upset fans. Many highly paid, extremely dedicated people would have spent a long time considering how to deliver a truly next-gen experience. That they got it so wrong is incredible, but nobody at Microsoft would have expected it.

Perhaps they were relying too much on the faith of their existing audience, perhaps they looked too far ahead. It's not unheard of. Sega's Dreamcast console was one of the best units available at the time. It introduced features that are standard in modern machines. Every unit shipped with a modem, players could browse the net and play online together for the first time. Despite these innovations the console ultimately failed. Online console multiplayer gaming hadn't taken off yet. People were happier with consoles they were familiar with.

Those fans who remember the build-up to the PS3's launch will recall it was anything but consistent. Two HDMI ports, three Ethernet ports and six USB ports were originally built into the console. Those numbers had reduced to one HDMI port, one Ethernet port and four USB ports, during the run up to launch - no HDMI at all was included with the 20gb system. The European release was delayed due to problems with the Blu-ray drive. In September 2006 Sony revealed another change. They would include an HDMI port on the 20 GB system, but the chrome trim, flash card readers, silver logo and Wi-Fi would not be included. Though not quite as impactful as Microsoft's Xbox One revisions, it's worth keeping in mind that Playstation wasn't exactly renowned for consistency, but still, it turned out to be a pretty good console.

It's probably from the problems with PS3's launch that Sony have learnt not to over promote unfinished features. They realised that despite having a loyal fanbase, those fans were only loyal to a point. They also found out that fans form such strong allegiances with their consoles that they feel personally let down by news they don't want to hear.

Microsoft have a lot of work to do if they're going to get back into the console race. Currently PS4 pre-orders are trouncing Xbox One pre-orders at a reportedly massive 4:1, and that figure looks set to rise with Sony out-manoeuvring Microsoft at every major press event, including the latest at Gamescom.

In truth, only time will tell which console will sell better and which will be the superior machine. One thing that is likely though is that Microsoft won't readily throw in the towel, as evidenced by their continued support for the original Xbox despite the losses it was generating.

The Consistent Console Message

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